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Neglected, Deserted Red Sea Oil Tanker a ‘Looming Disaster’, Study Warns

Floundering negotiations have left an oil tanker to rot in the Red Sea, creating a “massive time bomb” threatening the surrounding ecology, fishing industry, food and water security, and public health of millions of people, a U.S. think tank warns.

“A spark, an errant bullet, or an allision with another vessel could catalyze a devastating explosion,” say writers at the Atlantic Council, expressing concern about storage conditions aboard the neglected tanker FSO Safer, docked less than nine kilometres off the Yemeni coast.

“The consequences would be unfathomable. Estimated to hold 1.14 million barrels of crude, Safer could spill four times the amount of oil the Exxon Valdez leaked into Prince William Sound in 1989. And it would add another dimension of catastrophe to Yemen, a country already enduring the world’s worst humanitarian crisis amid a six-year war,” says Time Magazine.

Safer is a former oil tanker that was converted into a floating storage and unloading vessel (FSO) by a Texas-based company in 1988, then transferred to Yemeni hands in 2005. After civil war broke out, Safer was abandoned in 2015. Since then, the Yemeni Government, UN delegates, and Houthi movement representatives currently in charge of the vessel have been trying to reach an agreement on the FSO’s future.

Meanwhile, 47.9 million gallons of crude oil sit in the ship as it rusts.

A new study in the journal Nature projects what will happen if the oil spills into the Red Sea before the parties agree on an action plan. Unlike previous assessments, the study looks beyond ecosystem impacts to quantify disruptions to humanitarian aid and public health.

The research finds that a spill would threaten 93 to 100% of the nation’s Red Sea fisheries—one of the few sources of economic opportunity for Yemeni citizens. Were the oil to spread beyond Yemen, it would disrupt the daily clean water supply for up to 9.9 million people and diminish food security for up to 8.4 million. Pollution from the spill would increase the risk of cardiovascular hospitalization by an estimated 5.8 to 42%.

Yemen Minister of Transport Abd Al-Salam Hamid has called for more pressure from the UN on the Houthis to keep Safer “away from the existing political conflict,” reports Arab News. Its looming threat will affect “everyone without exception,” Hamid said. 

He added that the Ministry of Transport is ready to provide services to deal with Safer to contain any consequences. So far, however, the Houthis have rejected the UN’s requests for permission to inspect the ship without an added promise to repair the vessel, writes The Guardian. The UN does not have enough money to agree to the terms.

Experts familiar with Safer and the negotiations say it cannot be repaired, and that logistical issues—like where the ship will drop anchor—are keeping negotiations at a standstill, reports Time. But further speculation suggests the Houthis are blocking access to leverage the risk to people and ecosystems. 

With so much at stake, the authors of the Nature study say the spill and its potentially disastrous impacts can be prevented by offloading the oil. 

“Our results stress the need for urgent action to avert this looming disaster,” they write.